Model Aquatic Environments: Animal Behavior Studies with medusae at American Marine Laboratories, 1900-1930
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, scientists studying questions of animal behavior consistently turned to invertebrates for examining instinct and intelligence in the animal community. Jellyfish (medusae) became a favorite object of study for scientists working at marine laboratories throughout the United States. The organisms showed few signs of trauma in the aquarium, responded strongly to introduced stimuli, and were plentiful, meaning that research could continue throughout the season and was unencumbered by a lack of specimens. But, scientists utilizing medusae struggled to produce a model aquatic environment for their subjects within the laboratory setting. Disease, water chemistry, and illumination questions surrounded the building of aquariums for behavioral studies. Utilizing separate techniques, Robert Yerkes, Alfred Goldsborough Mayer and Gilman Drew each constructed model environments within laboratory aquariums to study medusae.
Work examining the role of models in scientific thinking, including work by Evelyn Fox Keller, Soraya De Chadarevin and Nick Hopwood, fails to highlight the function of environmental models, such as experimental aquariums. Using the example of medusae studies in marine laboratories at the turn of the twentieth century, this paper will examine the processes involved in building, utilizing, and interpreting model marine environments in scientific practice.